Why I wish I had said Kaddish

Calling for God’s name to be glorified is Judaism’s most powerful gift to the bereaved


Last week was my mother Judy’s first yahrzeit. She died, aged just 57, following a long illness and was buried, at her request, in her beloved Israel. The family is — naturally — still reeling from our loss, still getting used to a new reality. How we miss her grace and good humour, her courage, her insights, her love for us all. It has been a very long year.

And yet, in some ways, I wish it had been longer. Although my 12 months of mourning are officially over — and life, in theory, now goes back to “normal” — I feel I have not yet had a real chance to grieve. I thought that Jewish ritual would show me the way but it played a smaller role than I had expected or wanted.

The shivah was a great comfort. Not so much because of the hundreds of visitors (although I was grateful for them all) but because it was so important to spend that week with my husband, father and brothers, to be with family. It also helped that we were all so busy, effectively entertaining our comforters, and that there was no time to dwell on the last few days in hospital and no chance to contemplate the turmoil that lay ahead.

The end of the shivah, one aunt had warned me, was like letting go of the edge of a swimming pool to which you had been clinging for a week. Suddenly you were in the deep end, alone. And, for months later, every spare moment — washing up, going for a walk, sitting on a train — was spent mentally rehashing the last few days of my mother’s life. I was partially trying to make sense of it all but partially just haunted.

With a toddler and a newborn to care for, I would not have attended concerts or parties anyway

There weren’t that many spare moments, though. My mother had died a mere six weeks after I gave birth to my second daughter. With a newborn still waking up several times a night, and a toddler to entertain during the day, the needs of my own young family took over very quickly. Six months later, I was back at work, juggling even more.

Friends were wonderfully supportive but, at 32, not too many of my peers, thank God, have lost parents. They did not — could not — understand. It was increasingly hard to carve out the space to process my loss.

In the midst of all of this, I expected the Jewish mourning practices to be meaningful markers of the change in my life. In the event, they made little difference. I did not attend theatre, concerts or parties but, with a newborn, probably would not have done anyway. I used a halachic loophole to buy a few new items of clothing, asking friends to wear them before I did. We were not invited to any weddings.

Could it have been different? Last weekend, I revisited Ari Goldman’s 2003 book, Living a Year of Kaddish, in which the former NYT religion reporter charted his emotional journey following the death of his father.

I was struck by how much more intense and cathartic this period was for him. The key was his recital of the Kaddish, which gave him a daily opportunity to honour his father; to meditate on him; and to deepen his bond to his family. “For me,” he wrote, “Kaddish was as much of a chain as it was a prayer. It was a chain that in some way continued to connect me to my parents, and will some day connect me to my children… I think of the Kaddish as a portal for the dead to connect to life.”

He also drew strength and comfort from the other mourners answering “amen” to his Kaddish. Now, I realise that every person’s bereavement works differently. Nevertheless, looking back, I am sorry it never occurred to me to say Kaddish, as increasing numbers of Orthodox women do (although not usually every day).

This simple call for God’s name to be glorified — so appropriate for the mourner, whose faith may have been shaken — is Judaism’s most powerful gift to the bereaved. I hope it occurs to other women not to leave it solely to the men.

    Last updated: 4:18pm, December 10 2009

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